Honeybees throughout the planet are under attack from a range of threats including pesticides, changes in the environment, and human activity. In Japan, the bees can add one more threat to the list: the vicious Japanese giant hornet. The incredibly large insect measures up to two inches long with a three-inch wingspan and can have a stinger as long as a quarter-inch. Furthermore, they’re aggressive and one of their favorite groups of prey is the far-less defensively capable honeybees. What is happening and what can be done about it? We’ve got the details.

What a Japanese Hornet attack looks like

A full-on attack by a Japanese giant hornet is preceded by the work of a scout that identifies a honeybee hive and marks it with pheromones. Later on, the full contingent of hornets swarms the nest with each hornet able to kill two honeybees a minute. At this rate, just 20 to 30 hornets can decimate a hive in hours.

This kind of attack is anything but fair. While honeybees will sting back under aggression, their stings can’t penetrate a hornet’s armor. Once the fight is finished, hornets are able to dismember the hornets and return the center thorax of the bee to their own hive as food. They also return with succulent bee larvae and delicious honey that the hornets are incapable of making on their own.

Honeybees fight back by roasting the hornet scout

Once a full attack is underway, the honeybees don’t have a huge chance to combat the threat. Luckily, there are some things they can do to prevent carnage beforehand. If they can recognize and stop the initial hornet scout before it establishes a scent trail. If the scout hornet is killed, the hive is heroically saved.

The way honeybees save the hive is fascinating. They lure the scout into the center of their hive and then surrounding it with a group of as many as 500 honeybees. Once the hornet is trapped, the bees flap their wings to increase the heat within their hive, eventually causing the hornet scout to perish from heat exposure. They complete this action carefully, however, as they can only withstand a slightly higher temperature than their victim. If the bees make the environment just two degrees too hot, they die with their prey.

Thousands of years of fighting

This fight between the hornets and the honeybees has been going on for thousands of years. Experts are surprised that the honeybees haven’t grown any defenses against their giant attackers during this timespan, other than their ability to swarm and kill their initial intruder. Despite the intense threat of predation from the larger wasp over centuries, the bees have still managed to maintain large enough numbers to thrive.

Humans and bee stings

Hornet and honeybee aggression can also be deadly when focused on humans and these mortality rates may be increasing. New data from the Center for Disease Control indicates that fatalities from bee, wasp, and hornet stings combined have reached their greatest numbers recently. In 2017 approximately 89 people were killed as a result of stings, an increase from about 62 average deaths per year when calculated for the years 2000 and 2016. Experts caution that these numbers may actually be underreported as a severe allergic response to a bee sting can look extremely similar to a heart attack or sunstroke.

Overall, the research and data point to the conclusion that bees and hornets are something to be taken seriously. Whether they’re the generally gently honeybee or a Goliath-like hornet, there’s a reason they’re one of the most feared inhabitants of the planet.  The best advice? Keep away from them if you can, treat them gently if they’re near you, and if you’re stung treat the injury seriously.